Issue #44

Last Update March 2, 2006

Arts Shanghai Diary by Eric Kisch Eleven-year-old Ursula Blombergís childhood ended on a fateful day in 1939 when she was sent by her family to retrieve her father from Gestapo headquarters in Breslau, Germany, where he had been hauled in the middle of the night from the family home. The family figured the SS would not harm or detain a blonde little girl. She was given a large sack which she dragged with some help to a nearby car where family friends were waiting. In the sack they discovered the naked, beaten and semiconscious form of her father. The time had come to leave Germany ≠ and fast. 

But where to go? By then, all doors except one were closed to European refugees, especially Jews. That remaining open door was Shanghai, a war-torn city in China. It was under multinational rule, and one did not require an entry visa. So Ursula and her parents embarked into the unknown on a German ship crammed with other refugees. Sheltered by her upper-middle-class family and privately tutored, young Ursula imagined the place as peopled by "dainty Chinese ladies in long silk gowns with velvet slippers on their tiny feet, strolling in beautiful gardens."  Their reality was totally different. Shanghai was the cesspool of the East, "the boil on the hide of China," as their shipís steward described it.  

Making one's way in this strange, dangerous and desperate city required all the survival skills that Ursula and her parents and the other 20,000 refugees who had reached this "port of last resort" could muster.

From the time she and her family arrived in Shanghai to the time they left for the United States in July 1947, Ursula kept a diary. This diary forms the central resource she draws upon for her engrossing depiction of those turbulent times. As a former "Shanghailander" myself (though Iím almost a decade younger than Ursula and her friends), I believe that this book presents the most realistic picture of what life was like there. With a novelistís touch, Bacon captures the sights and the smells, the poverty, squalor and desperation of the refugees, living almost hand-to-mouth in overcrowded quarters with no hot water, flush toilets, or other basic amenities. 

The Ursula of the book comes across as very intelligent, resourceful, high-spirited, and open-minded. She is also a most aware chronicler of the times. Her education was the school of hard knocks, supplemented by the extraordinary resources and talents of the refugee community. She was exposed to lectures on science, literature, politics, music and theater by former professionals who now had no way of plying their respective trades. 

Ursula learned some Chinese and was able to help her father in his painting business, often going to client meetings and bargaining Chinese-style over prices and job specifications. As a way of making extra money, she gave English lessons to three young concubines of a powerful Chinese general and from them and from her acerbic but loving amah she learned more about the ways of the world than she was ready for.  

While not stinting on the terrible conditions, her story has many heart-warming and hilarious episodes that convey both the chaos and the exhilaration of the times. Her first-person narrative carries immense power and conviction.  She makes us understand the physical and emotional toll exacted on the refugee community members by the continual uncertainty over their own fate and the fate of Jews still in Europe. For all the hardships suffered, the story has a happy ending: The overwhelming majority of Jews survived and, after the war ended, immigrated to the United States, Australia and Palestine, where they rebuilt their lives. Almost none returned to their former homes in Europe. 

My only "complaint" about the book is that it is too short. One gets to care so much about Ursula and her circle of friends, her parents, and the Levysohn family with whom she spent so many happy hours and whose son she married, that one wants more. The good news is that a sequel is on its way. 

Shanghai Diary: A Young Girl's Journey from Hitler's Hate to War-torn China. By Ursula Bacon. M Press. Milwaukee. 2004. $24.95. 

Eric Kisch is the host of ďMusical PassionsĒ on WCLV-FM, Cleveland and was the subject of a June 2004 New York Stringer article of the same name. He is also a contributor to New York Stringer (Mahlerís Fifth, September 2001).

New York Stringer is published by NYStringer.com. For all communications, contact David Katz, Editor and Publisher, at david@nystringer.com

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